Gifts and Roles in Sports and in the Church
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery
23 August 2020
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer.
Today I’d like us to think about the reading from Romans, where St. Paul is offering some wisdom about the exercise of gifts in the community.
I was a senior in high school when my basketball coach sat us down as a team and talked to us about understanding our individual roles. It was after a practice just before the season would start. He went around the circle, talking to each of us, whether we were backups or the starters and spelled out how he saw our role and function on the team. When he got to me he said, “Deonna, you are Tara’s backup. Your job is to be ready to go in when she comes out. And, in practice, your job is to make sure you simulate the play of the opposing centers that she’ll face throughout the season.”
A few days later, Coach had individual meetings with each of us, where he went over our individual player goals. In that private meeting he said, “Deonna, what I didn’t say in the team meeting is that I expect you to push Tara in practice every day to make her get better. I need you to work hard and challenge her for that starting position. You are very close in skill set, but she’s 6 inches taller than you, which is giving her the edge in rebounding, and that is what is giving her the starting position over you. Tara will work hard and improve, which will make the team that much better, if she knows someone is right on her heels competing for her position.”
He also said to me that he looked to me for leadership on the team. This comment surprised me a little, since it was my first year on the varsity, I was not a captain, and I wasn’t a starter. “You’re a senior,” he said, “and I expect leadership from all my seniors, but you’re one of the most diligent players on the team. You’re one of the first people in gym every morning and one of the last to leave. You work hard, and you don’t get flustered very easily. You are also one of the best students in the school, and some players are really struggling with their studies. Please try to help them when you can, especially on the bus, when we are coming back from games late at night. I know it can be hard to be a leader on a team when you aren’t a starter, but I need you to set the tone for the team when it comes to our work in practice, and I need you to keep the 2nd string focused and ready to play. What I am asking of you,” he said, “is actually harder in many ways than being a captain.”
I had been playing sports since I was about 10 years old, but that was the first time a coach ever sat down with me and really talked to me about my role on the team, and what his or her expectations were for me, and how I could contribute specifically. It was also the first time that I was not a starter on a team that I played on. And, it was also very enlightening to hear what he thought the other player’s roles were on the team as well.
One of the things I admired about my basketball coach was that he was always very direct with us. And, like all good coaches, he worked very hard to build a team that would make use of the gifts and skills of his various players. Other than Tara at 6’3,” I was the next tallest at 5’9”. The rest of team was shorter, but also faster and we had some excellent outside shooters. So, coach built the offense around those gifts and skills. He also talked to us a lot about not being selfish and that we needed to work hard to help our teammates excel. He praised effort and teamwork, good passing, hustle, and being willing to stand tall and take a charge. I don’t ever recall him highlighting how many points a person ever scored in a game or a player’s statistics. He did, however, at the end of each academic quarter, read our academic grades aloud to the team.
That conversation that my coach had with us that day has always stuck with me. As I have moved on since then to play on different teams, both in sports and in professional organizations, I have asked myself what my role and function is on those teams.
But that conversation hasn’t been only important to me as a player, but also as a leader in various organizations over the years as well. What I saw from my coach that day, as a leader, was his ability to size up and ascertain the various gifts and abilities of each of his players, articulate them, and design an offense and defensive scheme that fit the gifts of his players. But, in sizing up our gifts, coach also sized up our limitations. And, he let us know about that, too. I remember one day him shouting at me during the 4th quarter of a close game. I got a good defensive rebound, but proceeded to dribble the ball up the court, and then subsequently, and embarrassingly, had the ball stolen away from me, and the other team scored off my turnover. As I was running back up the sideline, coach shouted at me furiously, “Deonna, you’re one the best defensive players on the team, but let someone else dribble the ball up the court!” That sort of stung, hearing him shout at me in front of everyone to hear. But he was right.
I share this long story with you because what many of us have experienced in sports is what has always held true for the church. God has given each of us gifts. The word used for gifts can also be translated as “graces.” God has given us each various graces. But those graces are not for our own benefit. They are not given to us so we can do whatever we want with them. We are given these gifts and these graces, for the benefit of the community, for the building up of the body of Christ. Just like any sports team, the church cannot function if every person has the same gift, or if people don’t use their gifts. And, it won’t function well, if people try to exercise gifts that they don’t possess. For example, if a person is asked to teach who is not a gifted teacher, that will not benefit the community and both the person and the community will be frustrated. If a person does not have the gift of leadership, whether lay or ordained, then the community will not flourish and could even be harmed. Paul also lists off the gift of ministry. In this sense he is referring to the ministerial roles usually associated with deacons, clothing the needy, feeding the poor, etc. If the church has no one in its community willing to exercise these gifts, then the church becomes too insular and not outward focused. If people don’t exercise the gift of generosity, then we will fail to learn as a community what it means to live believing in the abundance of God, and always think in terms of scarcity. If people don’t exercise the gifts of cheerfulness, how will we ever learn to take joy and delight in God?
This time of transition at St. John’s is the perfect time for all of us to think about our various gifts and how we currently use them to serve the St. John’s community. It is also a good time for us to ask other people what they think our gifts are, and ways in which they see us serving the community, because other people are usually more clear-sighted about our gifts and how they can be used than we are. As was evident with my basketball coach, he was able to discern gifts in each of us and ways we could help the team in ways that we hadn’t considered before. As players, most of us thought too narrowly about our gifts in terms of specific basketball skills, rather than how our gifts could benefit other players and the functioning of the team as a whole in all of its various dimensions. That level of insight and discernment was one of the gifts of leadership that our coach brought to the team. His gift of leadership, in concert with our gifts as players, are what made us function well as a team.
And having said this, I think it is important to remember that the gifts each of us brings to St. John’s, the gifts we offer to serve the community, for the praise and glory of God, are in many ways, independent of who our rector is. The gifts and skills I brought to the basketball team that year were cultivated on different teams and under different coaches, before I was on Coach Nichols’ team. But, it was part of Coach Nichols’ job to create the conditions on the team in that particular time and in that particular place, to harness the gifts each of us brought to the team, in such a way that all the players would flourish and benefit the team as a whole. Being a rector is much like being a coach on a team. The role of a rector is to help create the conditions in the church so that each of the members who make up the body of Christ can offer their gifts in the service of the wider community.
There are other things that are true about sports teams that are also true about the church. The people on teams change–players transfer, graduate, get hurt, or go in a different direction. Coaches and staff come and go. The same is true for the church. Some people move away, new people come in, some members die. New clergy and staff come in, clergy and staff retire, or move on to new jobs. The church is always changing. St. John’s has had the very rare experience of a 25-year tenure of a rector. So, it has experienced some consistency in leadership over the years, and people have become comfortable in the various roles they inhabit in the church.
But, with a new rector coming in, everything is on the table again to be sized up and evaluated. As all good leaders will do, John will spend a lot of time observing, getting to know his players, sizing up people’s gifts and skills, discerning people’s limitations, to include his own, and work to create a vision for St. John’s which will move St. John’s forward. He will work hard to create an environment where all the members of the body of Christ will have a place to share and exercise their gifts. One of the blessings of new leadership is that it also provides a fresh perspective and provides us with the opportunity, both as individuals and as a community, to discover new gifts that we didn’t know we had, or to deploy our gifts in new and innovative ways, or in different capacities than we’ve been used to. These are things that we should be excited about and look forward to, because any time we have the opportunity to use our gifts in new ways and in the service of others, we have the opportunity not only for personal growth, but also to deepen our faith and experience new ways of being grateful to God.
One final thing. There is one very crucial difference between playing on a sports team and being a member of the church. No one gets “cut” from the body of Christ like one can get cut from a team. Sports teams have a limited roster and a certain number of positions allotted for various skills. In sports teams, players compete first for a spot on a team and then next for playing time. And, in order to secure their place, players are often competing for the coach’s attention. But, St. John’s does not have a limited roster. All players are welcome. All gifts are welcome and hopefully none of those gifts are put to waste. Everyone has a place and everyone has a role. We are not competing with one another for playing time. There is no first, second, or third string players. The church functions when all of us are playing and living into our various roles. The church functions the best when we not only exercise our gifts in the service of God and the church, but also when we accept our limitations and not try to force ourselves into roles that are either not suited to us, or roles that are not what is best for the team at any given time.
I know that this time of transition can bring with it both a lot of anxiety and a lot of excitement. These are feelings that most teams have when a new coach comes in or when a new leader takes over an organization. The feeling of excitement is often about new possibilities and opportunities for positive change. The anxiety can be about how secure we feel in our role on the team or about what direction we think the coach is headed. Will our roles stay the same or will they change? For some of us, our roles will change, for some of us they’ll remain the same. But, whatever the case, have confidence in the fact that whatever gifts and skills that you have and want to offer in service of the church and of God, those gifts will be made use of. Perhaps in the same way, perhaps in new ways. And, when we can do this, with humility, we can rise to the level of St. Paul’s charge to be living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God. When we do that, in service of God and of the church, we are also doing that in the service of one another. Amen.